Every football team makes the claim before and during a season that they’re a close-knit group, tighter than ever before, a brotherhood. It’s what football teams say. Since they say it every year, it generally means very little.
But when the 2015 Notre Dame coaches and players say the difference between playing USC in the ’14 regular-season finale is night and day compared to Saturday’s mid-season clash in Notre Dame Stadium, it’s not the typical hyperbole. It’s a fact.
“Well, it was an embarrassment. It’s fair to say that,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly of Notre Dame’s 49-14 loss at USC in the regular-season finale as the Irish limped home with their fourth straight loss.
“There were circumstances in that game that we were not at full strength in certain areas. The circumstances in that particular game were not necessarily about practice preparation as much as we were a little bit outmanned.”
Gone from the lineup were injured veteran defensive linemen Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones, linebacker Joe Schmidt, and defensive backs Austin Collinsworth and Cody Riggs.
KeiVarae Russell, of course, was out for the year due to suspension. Upstart Drue Tranquill had been lost for the remaining two games due to injury. Max Redfield left the game early with broken ribs.
The upheaval prompted the insertion of true freshmen such as Greer Martini, Nyles Morgan and Jay Hayes, as well as red-shirt freshman Jacob Matuska and seldom-used, undersized fifth-year defensive end Justin Utupo. The injuries kept coming during the 35-point loss to USC. It took the mercy of Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian to keep it within a five-touchdown disparity.
Kelly saw something else that day that was disturbing, partly because of the youth of the players on the field, but also because something inside was lacking.
“Even though we were outmanned in certain areas, we didn’t play with the grit and determination that we needed to,” Kelly recalled. “What stands out more than anything else was the the mental toughness that we didn’t exhibit in that game.”
Despite the loss a couple of weeks ago to Clemson on the road, including a miserable start out of the gate, there should be no resemblance to the broken team that walked into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum last Nov. 29 when the Irish take the field Saturday night against the Trojans.
Jarron Jones and Tranquill are injured. But Russell is back. So are Day and Schmidt. The Irish have had a young but steady rotation at nose tackle in Jones’ absence. Isaac Rochell has taken his game up another notch. Jaylon Smith, Cole Luke and James Onwualu are a year older. Elijah Shumate is playing the best football of his up-and-down career. Redfield is healthy again after battling a thumb injury throughout the first half of ’15, and he won’t have to play against triple-option football.
“We have so many leaders now that are on the field,” Russell said. “If you look at that USC game last year, look at the defense, our starters were Greer Martini…true freshman, Nyles Morgan (in the second half)…true freshman, Matuska…red-shirt freshman, Jay Hayes…true freshman. Joe Schmidt was gone. Max Redfield broke his ribs in the first half. Cody Riggs was hurt…I wasn’t playing…
“We had a lot of youth out there. (USC) didn’t play the team they’re playing Saturday. This is a totally different team. We have a cohesiveness. We can rely on each other now.”
While Notre Dame’s defense still makes a habit of going through lulls that create touchdowns drives in clumps, it’s also a unit that held Texas to 163 yards total offense, contained Georgia Tech’s triple-option spread offense, limited Clemson to less than 300 yards total offense, and squashed Navy’s triple-option attack in the second half while remaining among the nation’s leaders on third down (10th nationally at 26.4 percent) and three-and-outs.
No one will call Notre Dame’s defense one of the best in the nation, but with a challenging USC offense coming to town, the Irish are in a position to expect success.
“We have a lot of guys now,” said Irish captain Matthias Farley. “Obviously going into last year’s game against USC, we were real banged up. A lot of guys were out. We had a lot of true freshmen playing that had never played in that environment, never played in that game before. This year everyone is more prepared and you’ve got guys that have a lot more experience and guys who are healthy.”
“We’re healthier,” Schmidt summarized. “During that game, some young guys had to play, guys that hadn’t played all year or had to play positions they’d never played before. We lost a bunch of guys in that game. It was hard.”
Like all teams/defenses, the leaders of the unit claim the same unique qualities they point to every season, only this time, there is evidence to support their claims.
“First and foremost, I’d point to off-season preparation,” Jaylon Smith said. “Truly jelling together as a team. Having the ability to overcome injuries, which plays (into) to our recruiting here, making sure we have depth.
“This year you can definitely tell that a lot has been put into it. We’re making sure we accomplish the mission.”
“The brotherhood we have and the leadership we have on this team,” Day summarized. “We have so much chemistry. It makes you want to do everything you possibly can for your brother because you don’t want to let him down.”
Added captain Nick Martin: “We stick together. We’ve had some tough times, but we’re a very together, tight-knit group.”
Players like Schmidt use more tangible examples, which can be found on the practice field.
“The way we practice, the way we prepare, and how much we want to be successful,” said Schmidt of the 2015 defense. “Everybody holds each other accountable and we’re extremely driven to get to our goal, to attain our goal.
“That’s what I see in this team, and I saw it (Tuesday) in practice, and I’m going to see it again this afternoon. I know it’s going to be there and it’s great to be around a group of guys that are like that.”
It’s the reason why Kelly says he won’t reflect on last year’s debacle at USC. It has no bearing on what will transpire Saturday night in Notre Dame Stadium.
“It generally comes back to the leadership and making sure that your locker room is solid and that they recognize their preparation is going to be eventually how they play on Saturday,” Kelly said.
“This group, this football team, has exhibited that every single day. So we don’t go back into (last year’s USC game) because this group has not shown anything that resembles the 2014 team that played on that day. We put that away. It’s in the drawer. We know about it, but (we recognize) the way Notre Dame football needs to be played.”
In other words, nothing like the Irish defense played on that dreadful day in the Coliseum 10½ months ago.